Sustaining research partnerships across time, space, projects, pandemics, and busy lives  

Published: 7 July 2022

In a busy world of pressing engagements, we often find it hard to carve out time to build relationships with different people and organisations. Dr Mia Perry writes about the importance of human relationships and connection in the world of research; how taking the time out to meet, chat, and connect with people, can change your outlook of your work and ultimately strengthen it and your sector.

The Sustainable Futures Global Network is a large Research Network consisting of 150+ members, across 9 countries and counting, and has been established over the relatively short time frame of 6 years. I co-founded this network with 15 team members of an ESRC research project in 2016 and now co-direct it with Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil. In my ‘day’ job, I’m an interdisciplinary researcher working in education and sustainable development in global contexts at the University of Glasgow. And the reality of this means that 90% of my job is about developing, building, and sustaining partnerships across time, space, projects, pandemics, and of course, busy lives.  

Partnerships are not benign, and they come in all manners and meanings. I, along with a substantial and cherished network of colleagues and friends, strive to work in ethical and equitable partnerships. We contend that our work only has as much as integrity as the partnerships behind it.  

We have researched and written extensively about ethical international partnerships (e.g. Aanyu, 2020; Perry et. al. 2022), but this post is about one in particular, that is as important as it is ordinary. In 2021, I led a team of researchers to submit a complex funding proposal to an international funding consortium. As part of that proposal, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a team at UNESCO’s Institute of Lifelong Learning (UIL). I was supported in this new partnership through the inherited trust from a much longer standing relationship with one of my senior colleagues. Due to this trust by association, I was able to submit a last-minute letter of support from UIL with my funding application. Six months later, the application was deemed unsuccessful. To my co-applicants I wrote immediately, shared the bad news and the various reviews, and we collectively resolved to look out for the next opportunity to pursue this work. However, I didn’t send the same messages to my new partner at UNESCO. I did not assume the familiarity with this outcome, nor the sustained commitment to brush off and begin again. So, I took a little more time and wrote separately when I was better prepared to propose specific next steps in our journey in addition to the disappointing outcome. I wasn’t building partnerships around this work simply for the purposes of the research funding application. I was building partnerships for the work that we were proposing. As the project was as important as ever, those partnerships were more important than ever, especially now that there wasn’t a nice new budget coming along to cushion the work.  

The email was sent, and in response to our subsequent correspondence, I was soon on a plane to meet with UNESCO UIL face to face. From experience, we recognized that time together in their place of work could provide a wealth of context, shared understanding, and breadth of partnership, that our focused and occasional online meetings cannot. It can be difficult to take four full days out of the busy day-to-day of work in a university, to send apologies, cancel and move meetings, and fall behind in tasks due. The time instead was taken up with four days -- “out-of-place” -- of meetings, new and unplanned conversations, walks, lunches, and serendipitous introductions, planning, plotting, and learning each other’s contexts, fears, and comforts. Not only do I now have a partner that I can rely on with my next application for this work, but more importantly, the partnership has now changed the work to be a better fit with their institute. A project that fits with multiple organisations is a stronger project. The letters of support may not change significantly, but the work becomes more relevant, more sustainable, and more likely to make a positive difference.  

The thing about partnerships is that it can be very easy, if we remember the human and the material elements. In amongst the busyness of it all, if we slow down, we can recognise the importance of sharing a meal, and the enormousness of small talk.  

Dr Mia Perry is a Senior Lecturer in Community Development and Adult Education in the School of Education. As part of her work she is interested in human-environment relations and socio-ecological sustainability, and is a part of the Sustainability research theme leadership group.

First published: 7 July 2022